The Paradox of History

When one’s conclusions can be no more extensive than one’s premises, one is bound to be at a standstill.  Everything must be foreknown or foreseen…Believing in this with pathetic loyalty, we have not understood for the most part that experience is not the guide of our lives but the trial to which we submit our dreams.”

                                                                                                                                       –George Boas (1920)                                                                           

Like many Americans, I have been reflecting today on the tragedy of an earlier September 11, and on President Obama’s words last evening.  Each in its own way brought to mind Greg Dening’s idea of history making— the transformation of lived experience into narratives.

On the question of narratives, Stuart Gottlieb’s insightful essay “History’s Advice to Barack Obama” takes on “the sort of behavior that the administration keeps pointing to as on the ‘wrong side of history’.”  Gottlieb offers two examples to illustrate the claim: the first, by President Obama, that “ISI[S] has no place in he 21st century”; and the second, Secretary of State Kerry’s about “19th century behavior in the 21st century.”

Reflecting on democracy and the paradoxes of history, Grzegorz Ekiert suggests the truism that “it is difficult to build democracy in a non-democratic neighborhood.” Something “even more difficult to conceptualize,” however, are:

“[L]ong run historical developments and their impact on present political and economic outcomes…the boundaries and borders, that were in place hundred or hundred fifty years ago and disappeared a long time ago, are showing up unexpectedly in the electoral geography.  Those old borders somehow have influenced the ways in which preferences are shaped today.”

Professor Ekiert’s context is East Europe, but his point seems indisputably to apply as well to the contemporary Levant.  It expresses the rule, not an exception to it: that historical borders affect contemporary preferences.  He offers two examples in postmodern 21st century Europe:

        “[I]n Poland when one looks at the number of NGOs in the countryside, one clearly sees that in the old Russian partition, there are significantly fewer NGOs in the countryside than there are in the Austro-Hungarian or in the Prussian partitions.  So you can see that the borders between Poland’s partitions still have an impact…”

        “Or, to take another example, in the middle of the nineteenth century there were many dialects in Germany[.]  A century later…a study of regional migrations discovered that today the mobility within the old dialect boundaries is higher than across dialect boundaries.  These are example of old boundaries that disappeared a long time ago but still have some mysterious power to shape contemporary outcomes.”

The paradox, he continues, is that “long-term continuities are most prominent in places which have a lot of discontinuity…one part of this discontinuity puzzle is that collective memories are kept intact when societies experience rapid and fundamental change.”

One might ask: where is this more the case than the Levant?  A commentary in today’s Al-Jazeera asks, “Obama: Can his plan save the Levant?” (one might append parenthetically “from itself”).  It states, “Briefings ahead of the announcement speak of a three-year conflict that recognises [sic] that the Islamic State group operates across borders but could initially focus on the battle for Iraq.”  Borders?  Lines on a map are Marquess of Queensberry rules in a street fight.  The quaint notion that, in a place like the Levant, borders once done cannot be undone is delusional in the face of an adversary like the Islamic State.  It doesn’t cross borders: it erases and redraws them like a demented Sykes-Picot.  That realization may underlie in some part Turkey’s refusal today to join “the coalition of the willing,” since it has not-inconsiderable experience with both redrawn borders, and rapid and fundamental change.

President Obama has a puzzlingly orthogenic view of capital H “history”: his History moves in a guided and unilinear fashion.  As a guide to statecraft, that view is fundamentally flawed.  It is bad science allowed to mutate into bad historiography: a discreditable “idea of continuous and progressive change,” of “evolution in a ‘strait line’.”  Its dogma is that History is discernably directionable, in the conviction, as Guyer put it, that it is “almost incredible” that what we see today is the product of “generation after generation…of purely accidental mutation.”  It may be comforting to imagine some benign “omega point,” in Teilhard de Chardin’s term, toward which History marches deterministically, if at times unevenly.  It is, however, a dangerously inept compass to guide policy, and a springboard for ill-conceived actions.  To paraphrase Don Corleone, pundits and philosophers can afford to be careless, not wartime leaders.

The point Gottlieb drives home in his essay is that active American leadership and engagement is sine qua non to confronting and defeating “territorial aggressors and anti-liberal ideologies.”  These are “the familiar components of international politics”: it is American liberal norms and institutions that are historically anomalous in a resolutely Hobbesian world.  That is the point about American exceptionalism: that it is the exception.

We are not flotsam in some metaphorical stream of history.  We are actors.  For wartime leaders, that means actively making history, or more clearly, making the history that will not otherwise come to pass.  As the events of twelve years ago proved resolutely, events will not otherwise default to our favor.